Tell not show – Favourite re-reads: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

SunshineI’m always surprised, on reflection, that Sunshine by Robin McKinley isn’t as well known and well-loved as it should be! Originally published in 2003 it could have ridden on the back of the Buffy wave and came two years before Twilight. I think that fans of vampire novels and fans of fiction generally who haven’t read this book are seriously missing out on something which is (almost) very special.

Sunshine by name and sunshine by nature, our sun-loving protagonist slowly tells us the story of her post-Voodoo Wars life. It is from the outset, a fairly mundane life – of which she’s glad – but after a trip to her childhood lake house, well, everything changes. Sunshine is captured by a vampire gang and offered as a kind of prize to a chained-up vampire, revealed to be called Constantine – the enemy of this gang’s leader, Bo.

I picked this up again because I’ve not come across a decent vampire or original horror lately. I’d remember that Sunshine had a weird quality to it but forgotten that supernatural was common and integrated into society; integrated except for the vampires of course. The eternal enemies. There is a Global council and global information network similar to the internet. This is very much not our world, despite the occasional cultural reference (a mention of Einstein and The Borg as examples). And Sunshine talks about it a lot.

There is the famous maxim in writing of show don’t tell. Give the reader insights into the plot and the characters by their actions and relationships. McKinley spins this concept on its head. Sunshine narrates most of the plot and character development in the first person. This is how she perceives the world and the events that are happening to her. She tells us about the plot and the characters she comes across. She is our window. This storytelling device is perhaps the only way that the otherworldly weird quality of book can work. Sunshine’s world is revealed to the reader very slowly. It is only on page 67 of my edition (476 glorious, smelly pages) that we learn Sunshine’s name – Rae is her name, Sunshine is a nickname. And even towards to coda, we still learn new things about the world she lives in.

What of that world? It is a very interesting one. Sunshine is a baker. Her existence revolves around a coffeehouse and the people who orbit it. Her boss is married to her mother. Her father is estranged. Her boyfriend is the chef. Her best friend is the librarian over the road. The world is full of Others – demons, weres, vampires, ghouls, magic and such-like. But in other respects, it is like our own. People have lives and jobs and hangovers and rubbish cars. It is this mundanity that makes Sunshine’s life so fascinating.

The vampires in Sunshine are fairly typical in how they move, exist and can be killed. They do have some interesting features for the reader to discover…However, you completely buy into Con’s character, as it is from Sunshine’s perspective, and her internal monologue. McKinley cleverly makes the book about us, the reader. It is probably how we’d react in these situations.

The clash of the ordinary and fantastical are of course well-worn tropes but McKinley delivers them with brilliantly heartfelt writing and some pretty awesome characters. The prose is full of wit and verve, even though it is mostly exposition. I love how Sunshine finds out who she really is. And she’s not Buffy, suddenly becoming a superhero. She’s always vulnerable and unsure. Even at the end, she’s horrified by what she has done. I felt a little sorry for Mel, her boyfriend. Out of all the characters, he is short-changed the most. Hints at something deeper are offered but in the finale, he his left by the wayside. All the other characters are great. And there’s a lovely section – when Sunshine meets an old woman called Maud in a park – about the kindness of strangers that has no real relevance to the plot, but is just really, really nice.

I really love the way that this is a standalone book. There’s nothing else which can diminish the magic of Sunshine and her relationship with Con and the patrons and workers of Charlie’s Coffeehouse. It’s a place I’d love to visit and the people are people I’d be glad to know. But not in the diminishing pages of book 7 or whatever. So maybe I should be glad that Sunshine is not so well known. Maybe it’s my secret. But what a secret!

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